War, PTSD, and the Devil

As many of you already know, I work at a VA Medical Center that is mainly a psychiatric facility. As a result, we see many people with PTSD. There are many veterans there who touch my heart. There is one veteran who always thanks me for the work I do. There is another veteran who comes up and hugs me. He never says why. If he sees me, he hugs me. I hug him back, and my heart breaks each and every time he hugs me. Working at this hospital has made me very aware of PTSD.

Many of those suffering from PTSD cannot get away from the images of the killing in which they engaged. It does not matter that their killings may be justified under western Just War Theory. It does not matter that they may have saved their buddies from being killed. There is something about killing a human being that has devastated them. Somehow, for them, the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is not interpreted as thou shalt not murder. Rather, God really meant, “Thou shalt not kill.”

It is well known that anyone who kills another person is affected by the kill. It is well documented that, for almost all, there are often strong emotional and physical reactions the first time one kills another person. Again, it does not matter how justified the killing. Police departments across the nation have now instituted mandatory counseling programs for any law enforcement officer who kills another person in the line of duty, because that reaction is so pronounced and predictable. Mind you, most who serve in the Armed Forces or in law enforcement do not end up with PTSD. But, notice that almost all who have served in harm’s way do not wish to talk about the experience in any type of detail. They do not wish to re-live it. It can be said that they were marked by the experience. More and more I realize that God really meant, “Thou shalt not kill.”

In this context, it is important to note what is said on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. “While disagreements may exist as to whether it is permissible, much less necessary, to limit violence through violent means, such means can never be viewed as a ‘good.’ There is no just war theology in the Orthodox Tradition.”

The Orthodox Church in America website has an interesting synopsis of the challenge faced by the Church. “The threat from the enemy may have ceased, physical wounds healed, but the mental and spiritual scars of battle continue to fester and place veterans at risk of sickness, injury and even death. … The headlines may declare the war to have ended, the troops may come home, but the devil has not signed any capitulation and continues to attack, and in some cases defeat, our warriors.”

It is not surprising that the accuser and destroyer of souls, our ancient enemy, Satan, is at work in the midst of the suffering. God does not desire that any should perish, but that all should come to eternal life. Ezekiel says, “’Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’” says the Lord God, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’ … For why should you die, O house of Israel? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord God. ‘Therefore turn and live!’” It is not surprising that God has placed in us a revulsion to killing people, for he desires that none should die. It is not surprising that Satan twists that and tortures and accuses those who have killed someone. It is not surprising that some crack under the pressure of the spiritual warfare.

And so, I have come to believe that the Church needs to intercede specifically for those with PTSD. Yes, of course they need psychiatric treatment. We Orthodox do not hyper-spiritualize our lives. But, they also need the prayers of the Church. As the Church, we need to join our hierarchs in saying that war “can never be viewed as good.” At the same time, we need to join our brothers and sisters who have served in harm’s way and are now hurt. We need to join them in practical loving ways and in deep prayer for their health.

I also ask you to pray for those who work in the treatment of those with PTSD, whether Armed Forces or law enforcement. They need God’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. May God bless them for their difficult work.

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