Tuesday, August 4, 2009

After the war

This article appears in the August 2009 issue of Signs of the Times magazine, published in Australia. It is based significantly on background research for Nemesis Train.

A rhetorical question: “Two soldiers go to war. One comes back and adjusts well, leaving it all behind. The other comes home with post-traumatic stress syndrome and cannot get the faces of the dead out of his mind. Which of them is crazy?”1 In a world in which history can often be summarised as a succession of wars, we count the costs in terms of the dead and the dollars but not so often do we pause to consider the tragic toll on the survivors—“Not everyone comes home from the war wounded, but the bottom line is nobody comes home unchanged.”2

After Vietnam

The ongoing struggles experienced by veterans of the Vietnam War are perhaps the most notorious example of this. Australians were involved in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1973, during which time 521 Australian personnel died in active service. In the three decades since, 421 “surviving” veterans are known to have committed suicide, with the suicide rate increasing decade by decade.3

This represents a rate about 20 per cent higher than that of the general Australian population. But perhaps a more specific comparison is between National Service personnel who did and did not see active service during this period. In this case, the rate of suicide is 43 per cent higher among those who actually fought the war.

The figures are even more disturbing when we look at the much larger veteran population in the United States. Reports vary across the many studies that have been conducted but as early as 1979 a report from the University of Denver’s School of Professional Psychology concluded that “more Vietnam veterans have died since the war by their own hand than were actually killed in Vietnam.”4

While almost 60,000 US military personnel were killed in active service, estimates of suicides among Vietnam veterans range from 20,000 to 200,000, with most in the higher end of this range. This represents a suicide rate between 30 and 80 per cent higher than the general population.5

And the suicide statistics are simply the most extreme count of larger problems, often grouped under the generic designation of post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide is an expression of the mental, emotional and spiritual scarring that also contributes to mental illness, homelessness, alcoholism and other drug dependencies, family breakdown and continuing physical ill-health.

Meet a chaplain

Someone working with these issues in his community has been Pastor Mike Brownhill, who has served as chaplain of the Beachmere Vietnam Veterans Drop-In Centre on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He admits this is a strange turn after being in the late 1960s and early 1970s “one of the biggest Vietnam War protestors God ever put breath into.” He is quick to explain that when marching on the streets of Sydney his protests were directed at the politicians, not the servicemen.

Today, he sees the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by between 40 and 60 per cent of veterans. “So many of them have destroyed themselves with alcohol and eating disorders are common,” Pastor Brownhill explains. “Almost all of them have been through at least one divorce. They can’t sleep properly and many sit up through the night, drinking coffee and surfing the internet. Heaps of them have suicided and the official statistics don’t include slow suicide—just drinking themselves to death.

“They risked their lives out there and came back to insults and shame, treated like they were criminals,” he says. “Soldiers in earlier wars came back as heroes, but Vietnam vets came back as scumbags and were expected just to melt back into society without any treatment. It was only after several decades that the Australian government gave them the acknowledgement and recognition they deserved.

In his role as chaplain, Pastor Brownhill’s approach is straightforward. “My belief is that Jesus fixes everything—but perhaps not completely in this life,” he says. “Jesus changed my life and so I look for opportunities to share that with these people who are still hurting 40 years after those experiences.

“Counsellors might do it a little different but I’m there as a chaplain, so I have an excuse for talking Jesus with them. And these guys are open to spiritual things, they have been through so much and so they are happy to talk about it.”

Our response

So how do we respond to these realities?

First, veterans are real people—our neighbours in our cities, suburbs and towns. They were not lost on a remote battlefield with an unpronounceable name, but they carry the burden of having been there, experienced it and participated in it—and they are being “lost” in our communities. As one veteran is quoted on “The Wall of Words” at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Canberra, “I don’t seem to have many friends since I came home. If you weren’t there then you can’t understand.”

Many of us cannot fully understand, but because veterans such as these are our neighbours, personally and as a society, we can find ways to reach out to them to help with that burden.

And then there are the young men and women we, as a society, continue to send to fight wars in various places around the world. Recognising that even the “survivors” and “winners” struggle in the aftermath of war, “Blessed are the peacemakers” is not just a nice slogan or a good idea, but must find new expressions and new champions in our world and in our communities.

1. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, Zondervan, 2008, page 214.

2. Tom Baldwin, “America suffers an epidemic of suicides among traumatised army veterans,” The Times, November 15, 2007.

3. The Third Australian Vietnam Veterans Mortality Study, Department of Veterans Affairs, Australian Government, 2005.

4. Vietnam Veterans of America.

5. Suicide Wall.