Sundoulos - Summer 2009

Jesus' Healing for the Horror of War

by Michael J. Wilkins

The Horror of War

“I would like for people to quit saying to me, ‘I understand.’ Because they don’t, and they can’t. It’s better to say nothing.” Those words came from a young Marine sergeant talking about how he dealt with coming back home from the war in Iraq. His response is not unusual.

Any young man or woman now serving in Iraq or Afghanistan would agree, not tritely, that “war is hell,” whether they experienced personally the trauma of battle or saw the consequences in those around them, civilian or military. But the trauma of war doesn’t just go away.

How does a young veteran recover as he or she attempts to re-enter civilian life? Many find it very difficult to rediscover what “normal” is, because their sense of normalcy has been altered by their experiences in the horror of war.

Exactly forty years ago I was trudging through the jungles and mountains and rice paddies of Vietnam carrying an M-16 rifle, with a 50 pound rucksack on my back loaded down with C-rations, hand grenades, knives, ammunition—and everything else that I owned. My assignment was to search and destroy the enemy. I was a young nineteen year old who had enlisted in the Army to be a paratrooper with airborne infantry training. Then I found myself in 1968 assigned to the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade in the central highlands in some of the most intense fighting of the war.

It took only one day in-country for any glamour of war to be dispelled. My very first day in the field as I was choppered out to join my new unit, I was greeted by the sight of a helicopter gunship that had been shot down the evening before. It had attempted to provide support for my new platoon as it was pinned down by enemy fire. The chopper crew was all killed.

And so began my year of experiencing the horrors of war. It is no trite thing to say that war is hell.

Ask anyone of any war who has held buddies with limbs blown away as they wait for medical aide. Or as they die. Ask anyone who has watched innocent civilian children lose parents and homes and any semblance of normal life in the daily swirling horror of war. Or anyone who has seen those little children killed.

Ask especially anyone who, for the first time, has looked the enemy in the eyes and killed him. That was one of the darkest moments in my year in Vietnam. There was an immediate bravado as the conqueror, but later while sitting in the dark of night, those eyes would come back to haunt me. The “enemy” was just another person who was caught up in trying to serve his country. He was no older than I, probably younger, and probably had a mother and father and siblings, perhaps even a girlfriend, all waiting for him to come home.

And so began the plaguing thoughts, the doubts and the recriminations, but also the reasonings and the justifications. So also come thoughts of an afterlife—for the enemy, and also for myself. It is a heavy power to take the life of another. To dwell in that power can turn a person into a monster, or into a wimp. A hardened heart accompanies the former, while paralyzing fears accompany the latter. And a person in combat can’t be either of those extremes.

I had to adjust my heart and fears, and thoughts of home and eternity, and images of the enemy, so that I could be efficient in getting myself and my buddies home safely. I became a very efficient war machine for the next eleven months.

Healing for the Trauma of War

But once safely home, what then of this new efficient war machine? Such a person can’t fit into “normal” civilian life. As the hardened heart is softened or as the fears are acknowledged, back in a flood come the memories, attacking heart and emotions.

Combat in Vietnam was only for a year, but it permanently altered my life. When I returned home, I was different. I had become hard, suspicious, untrusting, angry, and mean. I had a very difficult time relating to people, and I could use them or abuse them without conscience. And I retreated into a variety of unhealthy lifestyle choices. But a year after my return, through the grace of God I met Jesus Christ, who became my very personal God and Savior. Some things changed immediately, like certain lifestyle choices. I now had a Savior who filled my deepest needs, so I didn’t have to retreat any longer into unhealthy substances or relationships.

Other things took much longer to change, particularly my anger and inability to trust. I met my future wife, Lynne, not long after I returned. We married a year after I became a Christian. It was a long ordeal for her as she helped me adjust to normal life. At night she would wake me to calm me down from nightmares. During the day she was a soothing source when something unexpected would trigger a flashback to the war. She slowly showed me in her own life how to love and accept and trust people. Jesus’ loving care, especially through Lynne, over a long period of time, brought healing to my very tortured soul.

Help for Veterans of War

I recently was asked by the Christian television program Day of Discovery to return to Vietnam to take part in the filming of a documentary that is intended to help veterans returning from war, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, attention is being given to the process of recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the producers of the documentary will include discussion of the help offered by psychologists and psychiatrists and those in the military and medical and social services communities. But they want also to attest to the spiritual healing offered through the church and parachurch ministries that only Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit can provide.

To provide living testimony to this recovery process, another veteran, Phil Downer, and I were asked to return to Vietnam, where we were filmed as we retraced our battle experiences and then recounted our recovery from the trauma of war.

Our wives are also being interviewed in the documentary to discuss how they were affected by our war experiences, but also how they helped us in our recovery. Lynne was, and is, the most important person that the Lord has used in my life to help me in my healing and process of recovery from war. And Phil says the same of his wife, Susy. So, we are hoping that their testimonies will be a source of help for other spouses of veterans.

The Day of Discovery program will be televised early in 2010 throughout the United States and Canada, and a series of DVDs will be distributed worldwide to help veterans in their recovery.

Return to Vietnam

I was not completely certain how my return to Vietnam would impact me. I daily recorded my thoughts on the experience, primarily to share with my family, but also to try to process my thoughts and feelings. I hope that my reflections here will help readers who are veterans themselves or are working veterans.

It is possible to become healthy

Perhaps the most powerful experience I had was in the first few days of our trip. We visited the sites of some horrific fighting for my unit, near the regions of Pleiku and An Khe in the central highlands. My unit had been decimated; after my first month in-country everyone in my squad of 11 men, except me, were either killed or wounded and had to be evacuated. The fighting continued almost incessantly for the next 2-3 months. Our regular “search and destroy” mission was to search out enemy camps in the mountains, engage them and try to wipe them out. Then we would be put on choppers to go to another location for “search and destroy.” For some 3-5 months we had nearly daily combat.

Revisiting the sites of these intense memories, I had to sink deeply into what I had experienced, and what had been happening to me and my men. That was the beginning of the hardening of my heart, the beginning of real conflict in my emotions and thoughts about what was going on around me—people killing and hating each other. It also was when I began to retreat into myself.

But now on my return trip, I began to sense a deep, deep peace. I could see clearly that God has been at work in my life these past forty years. I felt healthy—spiritually, emotionally, relationally. And that may be the most wonderful part of this trip. I didn’t feel the need to know more about what happened here or what I did. I didn’t feel that I needed to do anything more with regard to my recovery from Vietnam. There are many other areas of my life that I know that I need still to grow in. But with Vietnam, at this point in the trip, I felt a deep sense of peace that I’m okay. And for that, I thank God and Lynne.

There are proven methods for helping veterans to recover from trauma. It has been a wonderful confirmation for me, and I hope that any veteran would know that recovery is not only possible, but a reality when we allow Jesus to walk ahead of us and show us the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The process of recovery works.

Forget appropriately by finding health

About half-way through the trip I had one particularly dark day. We had visited several sites that brought back some very heavy memories of battles that had deeply scarred me. One that had haunted me for years was a night when my squad was out on ambush patrol. There was significant intelligence of heavy enemy activity heading our way. Our platoon had set up camp and my squad was out on protective ambush. The platoon was attacked while we were out, and by the time we got back to help we found a number of our group killed and wounded. The most gut-wrenching was the death of our platoon leader, who had been in-country only a few months. He had courageously put his life on the line by leading the rest of the platoon into a defensive position, but only by sacrificing his own life. He received the Silver Star, posthumously, for his courageous actions. I wrestled for many years with “what if” we had gotten back in time. Perhaps his life, and others, would have been saved.

In reliving these kinds of scenes on our return trip, I was beginning to feel mired in war, sinking back into it. I knew why I was there, and I gladly went deeply into my former experiences to relive them. I wanted to be able to share them to help veterans recover from the trauma of war, and to help others understand so they could help veterans recover. But at the same time, I felt as though I was entering back into war as my identity. I was sinking back into being consumed by war, and felt that if I didn’t get out of there soon, I was going to bring too much back with me, and I was going to have to spend time recovering again.

But that dark day brought back to me what has been an important part of my own recovery: the balance of appropriately forgetting the past, yet not hiding from it, which is an extrapolation of Paul’s words of forgetting the past, yet pressing on to the future (Phil. 3:13-14). As a new Christian, I had entered as completely as I could into my new identity as a disciple of Jesus. Because of that, I was able to put proper perspective on who I used to be, and who Jesus was making me to be. I believe that is critical for veterans recovering from the trauma of war.

Two issues are important here.

First, the past is alive. It can helpfully speak into my present to give me guidance. But it can also muffle my present with its domineering memories and guilt. I can live with only so much of the past as an active participant in my present. I’m not just a Vietnam veteran. I’m a husband and father and grandfather and teacher and dean and neighbor and train commuter who has relationships that are not dominated by my past. So the thing for me is to find the way of having the past of Vietnam be a safe room that I visit every so often, but that can be locked when not in use.

I should say that there are some closets in that room that will stay locked. They contain memories of things that I don’t want to revisit. I know what is in there, and if God wants me to revisit them I will, but I personally don’t think that I ever need to visit them again. I’ve dealt with them with God, and they are at rest in the closet.

Second, I left much of Vietnam behind forty years ago. I have not kept in contact with anyone from Vietnam. Part of that was circumstantial, because I wanted to get on with a new life and not live with the memories of Vietnam. Part of that was because I became a Christian, I met Lynne, and God opened a whole new world.

So, in a sense, carrying on the analogy, I don’t have a room in my present life for Vietnam. I have to make choices about relationships from the past, because I don’t have a room on a daily basis for maintaining all of my past relationships, including some relatives, former churches, schooling, neighbors, etc. So in that sense I’m not avoiding Vietnam—I just don’t have a room for it in my current life. And I truly believe that is not unhealthy. I believe and give to God that if he wanted me to I could go back to that Vietnam room and unlock the door. But I’m not living in that room. Today has enough troubles of its own! (Matt. 6:34).

Open up appropriately to the process of recovery

It was during the trip to Vietnam that I met the young Marine that I mentioned at the start of this article. We visited Hanoi, now the capital of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The young Marine was part of the United States Marine Corps Security Guard in Hanoi, responsible for the protection of the United States Embassy and our Ambassador.

The young sergeant has served two tours of duty in Iraq, and will likely be deployed there again soon. It was a strange sensation to be talking with a young man about his combat experience and how he is still recovering. He asked me about my combat experience in Vietnam and my own process of recovery. I was now the older veteran helping a younger veteran, and we hit it off deeply.

I then got to interview him for our television program. I asked him to try to express how he dealt with coming back home from the war. That’s when he made the comment about people not understanding what he has been through. Then he said to me, “I think that you understand, sir.” That confirmed why I was there in Hanoi.

He continued, “After Iraq, I went home, and my family is a very religious family. I never drank at home in front of my parents before. But the whole time that I was home I drank a lot. I’m really not proud of that sir, but I will say that my family never said anything to me about it. They just accepted me, just like they always have.” His parents are devout Christians, and without having had any personal experience with war, they simply knew to hang in there with their son and love him, and look for ways to be used by God to break through to this young man with the help that Jesus can offer him.

I’ve thought several times about that interchange with the young veteran. Two reflections stand out.

First, he has experienced and survived the horror of war. Not everyone can understand what he experienced—how it has altered his world and how difficult the process of recovery is. Not even he fully understands what he is going through. There is a small brotherhood between those who have experienced and survived the horror of war. Yet, in some ways that is not completely different than the experiences of others who have experienced other traumas of life such as death of a loved one, or a natural disaster, or the tragedy of an accident or the violence of human cruelty. It is important for veterans of any trauma to help other veterans of trauma.

Second, no, not everyone can fully understand. But I urge those of us who have experienced trauma not to push people away. As they try to understand, we try to open ourselves up, and when done appropriately, it can be of tremendous value. Some isolation is necessary; I couldn’t open up to everyone. But the Lord used Lynne in a significant way—she cared enough to want to try to understand. So the young Marine’s comments about his family’s commitment to him are strikingly important. They could not fully understand or relate to his experiences of war. But they remained committed by loving him and seeking to try to understand him. And they consistently tried to be God’s conduit of loving care. That is exemplary.

One large difference of the current war environment from that of the Vietnam war is that, regardless of one’s opinion about the “justness” of this war, the people of our country are supporting the veterans. Veterans don’t make war policy; they are simply serving their country. I am proud of the way that the people are giving aid in a myriad of way to the returning veterans. The companion article in this issue entitled “Ministry to Veterans” by Talbot alumnus U. S. Army Chaplain Kevin Doll and Talbot professor Dr. Rex Johnson lays out some excellent professional and pastoral ways and resources for helping returning veterans.

An unexpected peace

One final thought. I came back from Vietnam this time with an unexpected sense of peace. When I used to think back on my experience in Vietnam, there was always darkness and heaviness and a tinge of evil. But unexpectedly, I no longer have that. It seems that seeing the people of Vietnam now at peace, even in a domineering political environment, has helped me see that there is hope in that country. Life is better for them. And the darkness in my soul has somehow been lifted.

That causes me other consternations though, as when I think of the lost lives and wounded veterans of our military forces. Should I believe that our involvement as a country really was all a waste of young lives? I don’t think that I’m in a position to judge those things.

What I do know is that there is peace now in that land and that it is an increasingly thriving country. Ultimately I have to leave it to history and to God to work out his will, regardless of political powers. That’s a tough one for all of us to consider.

But returning to Vietnam has given me renewed hope and affirmation that God’s renewing power can overcome all of the challenges of this life. Even the horror of war that none of us understands fully.

Michael J. Wilkins (MDiv, Talbot; PhD, Fuller Seminary) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Faculty at Talbot. Mike is the author of a number of scholarly and popular books and articles, including an award-winning commentary on Matthew in the NIV Application Commentary series (Zondervan, 2004). Mike and his wife Lynne live in San Clemente, where Mike tries to surf responsibly.

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