Over the course of a year my relationship with the 173d Airborne Brigade was formed through an ongoing e-mail exchange with the chaplains on the ground in Iraq. These paratroopers of the 173d made the night combat jump in early 2003 to open up and secure the northern front in Iraq.
In mid 2003, we began communicating with key people of the 173d Airborne, and soon thereafter I contacted Chuck Dean and collaborated with him on writing and designing a new course workbook. The focus of this book, (“Turning Your Heart Toward Home”), is to help those returning from the war reintegrate and rebuild relationships with loved ones at home. As a result of working together on this project an invitation was extended to us to provide information about the ramifications of the impact of war on the returning combat troops from Iraq. My years of experience in counseling and working with veterans and families through the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD Program was invaluable in bringing simple understanding about combat stress to these troops who had just returned from combat in northern Iraq.
We arrived in Vicenza, Italy on May 24, 2004 and were escorted to Camp Ederle, the home of the 173d Airborne Brigade, by Army chaplains Major Tom Wheatley and Captain Steve Cantrell (no relation to me). These wonderful men did an excellent job in arranging all our meetings and services. As well as our logistical needs, they helped setup battalion-sized meetings plus individual and small group counseling sessions with the troops.
On the 25th of May, 2004 we had the opportunity to address the issues of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with over 2500 men and women from three battalions and one artillery battery of paratroopers. When the program was then turned over to me I presented a power point introduction to describe the basic aspects of PTSD and readjustment issues. The presentation was given in a way to offer psychological tools to enhance coping skills and illuminate some of the challenges they may encounter along the way.
To help these soldiers gain an understanding of what to expect from witnessing, and participating in combat, it was critical to “normalize” their symptoms and reactions. This was accomplished by stressing the idea that what they are feeling, and perhaps acting out, is not out of the ordinary. However, I explained, that this is common in those who experience such stressful and traumatic events as found in combat. Our purpose on this mission was NOT to alarm the troops, who were so fresh out of combat, but to help them understand some of the reactions to stress and the “signs along the trail” that they may be experiencing (and many were). It was important to give them a simple understanding of PTSD and to “normalize” their responses to life after war. If done properly there is a greater possibility that they may be able to recognize and avoid some future problems that could otherwise cause prolonged, unpredictable and adverse effects.
Our days were spent by presenting information to large groups, small focus groups and individuals. We believe that many of these troops came away with more effective tools to help them with present and future readjustment issues. As time goes by we currently continue to pray for and communicate (via e-mail and USPS mail) with some of the troops whom we were so privileged to meet while there. It is our hope that this is just the first of many open doors for us to continue to work in unison with the U.S. military in caring for the troops and their families.
My take-away value and impression of this particular opportunity has afforded me valuable insight on some of the needs of those coming home from war. It also gave me an opportunity to understand how we as a society can provide better support for them.
One observation I made is in the area of how helping can be important in the healing process. It seems as though the moment a person transcends from receiving help to wanting to give it, an interesting phenomenon of healing begins. As I watched and dialogued with some of the chaplain’s assistants of the 173d Abn, who had been in Iraq, a unique aspect of the adjustment process surfaced—and it had to do with the subject of help, healing, and an open willingness to discuss their wartime experiences. (This willingness to talk of stressful and traumatic experiences is oftentimes indicative of a more advanced stage of restoration). Since they appeared more open to discussion than most of the other troops, it occurred to me that this might be a direct result of their military job of helping others. It had to do with the decision to step beyond their own war issues and spend time comforting those in need (i.e. fellow soldiers and Iraqi people).
Observing first-hand the anger, sadness, and frustration that many of my patients on the home front harbor over war (many of whom are veterans or family members of previous wars), I felt a need to transform the negative to the positive. I was led to find an avenue from which they could use these emotions to change the lives of those serving in our military in a meaningful way. I provided an opportunity by which my patients could begin to reach outward with compassion, rather than harboring these negative feelings inward.
I began inviting my patients to join a concerted effort to help bring some joy and good will to the soldiers serving our country in the war zone. Together we formed the “bake club”. It was by the good graces of some of the contacts I had in the Chaplaincy Corps that my patients and I were able to send 300 pounds of homemade chocolate chip cookies, brownies, literature on PTSD and other necessities to the combat zone of Northern Iraq. Needless to say, these gifts from home represented the feelings of support throughout America for our troops. Here on the home front the hearts of those who contributed were lifted in spirit by knowing their efforts were not in vain, and that they had made a difference in the lives of soldiers who are so far from home.
Another project I introduced my patients to was that of the needs of the Iraqi children. My women’s groups (consisting of women veterans, spouses or partners of veterans, and the adult children of veterans) gathered donations of toys, school supplies, and clothing to replenish personal items lost in war. We sent hundreds of pounds of goods, which were well received and appreciated.
The dedication and determination of my patients to give to those affected by this war has left a new sense of purpose and gratitude in their hearts and mine. While many admit that their troubles pale in comparison to those whose lives are devastated by this war, there has been a renewal of purpose in finding healing for themselves through the gift of helping others.
I am honored to be in the midst of such wonderful human beings who are so touched by the suffering of others, that they too see the importance of reaching out to those who are in need.
It is my hope that more people will participate in similar acts of compassion, not only to help themselves, but to change the lives of those who are so willing to pay the ultimate price by serving in uniform. As I continue to provide mental health services in Bellingham it is my hope that similar projects will be undertaken on behalf of supporting our troops.
We look forward to presenting our workbook course “Turning Your Heart Toward Home” in many local areas. For information on seminars and group material please feel free to contact my office in the Fairhaven District of Bellingham.
Bridget C. Cantrell, Ph.D.