The Silent War at Home
- Tuesday, May 19, 2009
When Frank Vozenilek returned from the Viet Nam war in 1971, from the pulpit, his pastor called him a murderer (Vozenilek was a medic and never killed anyone). Vozenilek vowed he'd never set foot in a church again, a promise he kept for 15 years while dealing with the fallout from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including two failed marriages.
In 1970, after 14 months in Viet Nam, James Knudsen returned home as a decorated combat veteran. A Christian and regular churchgoer, he has suffered from PTSD ever since, resulting in long-term unemployment and severe depression. In 1999, his wife of 20 years left him.
Both Knudsen and Vozenilek now minister in the Cedar Rapids/Marion, Iowa, area, assisting churches to help veterans with PTSD.
"The church dropped the ball on us," says Vozenilek, who works with veterans through Point Man International Ministries (pointmanintl.org). "We cannot afford to drop the ball on this generation."
To be fair, PTSD wasn't fully recognized until 1984, well after Viet Nam. Today, it's a well-known condition in which reactions to a traumatic or life-threatening event continually recur or even intensify, even after the danger is past. The main symptoms include traumatic memories/nightmares, hypervigilance, aggression, emotional detachment, depression, and avoidance of crowds. It often leads to substance abuse, chronic unemployment, and homelessness. The suicide rate among those with PTSD is almost twice the national average, and two out of three of their marriages fail.
Though studies show that nearly one in five veterans from Iraq and Afghan-istan suffer from PTSD, experts say the numbers are likely much higher, since many deny having it either because they don't recognize it or they worry it could end their military careers. Reported wartime PTSD cases jumped roughly 50 percent in 2007. Yet only about 30 percent of those go to Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals or centers for help.
In The Combat Trauma Healing Manual, used by Bridges of Healing, Campus Crusade's Military Ministry, Chris Adsit notes that a large percentage of troops serving in the current war are National Guard and Reservists, which means they don't stay attached to their bases for long. "We have wounded warriors scattered all over our country, infiltrating all of our society," Adsit says. "There is only one other entity that infiltrates all of our society, and that is the church. The government resources are already overwhelmed. If the church doesn't step up and offer aid, I really don't see much hope for these heroes."
After Andrea Westfall's 10-month deployment to Kuwait with the Oregon Army National Guard in 2002-03, she began showing symptoms of PTSD but didn't seek help, and was not diagnosed until she had been home a year. Looking for answers to her questions about God, Westfall turned to the leadership at Springfield Faith Center in Springfield, Oregon.
"I was told that if I began presenting issues related to 'war,' I would have to go to the VA," she says. "I was already going to the Vet Center for PTSD! What I needed was for someone to walk me through this new spiritual journey and not to be judged, condemned, or thrown pat answers."
Westfall tried several other churches before giving up. But when she was invited to be a guest at Times Square Church in New York for a PTSD training seminar, the sincere hearts of the senior pastors restored her hope that churches can show legitimate care to vets.
"PTSD is affecting every church in America," says Eric Garcia, co-founder of the Association of Marriage and Family Ministries. "The problem is, the church just doesn't know what to do. The key is educating the church and helping them understand how they can play this key role in people's lives."
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