War, PTSD, and the Devil

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.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.