December 2000/January 2001
Father Phil and Reverend Mehedy:
Repairing Veteran’s Spirits
By William Triplett
"Those of us who’ve fought in wars know that many of the wounds
we’ve suffered are spiritual ones. It’s often said that religion is
for those who are afraid of Hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been
That’s Father Phil Salois speaking recently at a seminar on
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Alexandria, Virginia, not far from VVA’s
national headquarters. Sitting next to Salois and nodding in agreement is
Chaplain William P. Mahedy, a key member of the San Diego VA Medical
Center’s PTSD clinical team and the author of Out of the Night: A
Spiritual Journey for Vietnam Veterans. A few minutes earlier Mahedy
gave a presentation similar to the ones Salois is now making.
Salois and Mahedy have more than a little authority on their subject.
Both are Vietnam veterans who saw a good deal of combat. And both have
spent many years helping their former brothers in arms exorcise the
psychological and emotional ghosts of Vietnam. For about two decades PTSD
treatment has been founded on a fairly basic idea--gtting veterans to open
up and talk about their experiences as a means of finding a way to come to
terms with them. Mahedy in particular has been at the forefront of PTSD
treatment. He was a co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Program in
1977 and joined the Vet Center initiative when it began in 1979.
But in the last few years Mahedy and Salois began noticing a facet of
PTSD so basic--in a way so obvious--that it was going largely untreated.
And since this facet lies at the dark heart of PTSD, it explained why some
veterans, despite years of therapy, were still suffering.
In 1997 Mahedy was working with a group of veterans, and one of them
remarked, "I was trained in Camp Lejeune as a Marine and I did a lot
of killing in Vietnam. I need a spiritual bootcamp."
"That got my attention," Mahedy said. Repairing veterans’
spirits had always been a part of his work, but the remark brought the
issue into sharp focus. Horrible acts of war do more than just damage the
workings of the mind and memory. "These things engage the deepest
questions of meaning," Mahedy said. If there is a kind, loving God,
how can such horrors happen? What does it mean to be "good" or
"right," and how can one who has participated in such acts--even
as a bystander--ever think of himself in those terms again?
"Very quickly you get to the core of meaning," Mahedy says.
And not just for religious believers. "The interesting thing about
atheists is that they’re always groping for some sense of the
world," Mahedy said, "and war calls into question the
fundamental meaning of the universe. It causes people to think
deeply" about profoundly difficult questions that can--and often
do--keep people who’ve experienced war in perpetual turmoil. The kind of
turmoil, in fact, that no amount of talking can cure if it doesn't at
least attempt to find answers to these large, spiritual questions.
Salois came to the same conclusions at about the same time, after
spending years working with veterans and their families. Which is why he
and Mahedy both started revising their approaches to PTSD treatment so
that spiritual recovery would be the primary goal. Both Mahedy and Salois
have been achieving impressive success with this approach. Which, in turn,
is why PTSD experts and clinicians from all over the country packed the
large conference room of the Hilton Mark Center in Alexandria where the
two clergymen were speaking.
"The great moral discovery in a combat zone is that of one's own
limitless capacity for malice, and, by extrapolation, the unsuspected
depths and pervasive nature of human depravity," Mahedy writes in a
monograph entitled Some Theological Perspectives on PTSD. "God
seems malignantly absent in the caldron of madness, savagery and malice
that is war. Grace, redemption, mercy, kindness, love of neighbor--the
stuff of New Testament faith--are incompatible with the killing rage of
To help veterans survive this discovery--especially after they return
and try to resume a "normal" life--Mahedy essentially adapted
the 12-step recovery model of Alcoholics Anonymous. The model is heavily
based on religious principles, such as the belief in a power higher than
oneself and the need to put one's trust in that power. Iimplicit in it is
the resurrection of the sufferer’s spirit.
No easy feats for some Vietnam veterans.
"Having confronted real radical evil," Mahedy notes,
"the veteran is no longer able to accept the cultural assumptions
which formed the basis of pre-combat life. Evil of this magnitude
encompasses an almost total immorality into which the soldier is drawn.
This creates `moral pain’ on a scale most noncombatants can never
comprehend. The veteran’s entire belief system collapses into angry,
often lifelong nihilism. This is the most enduring and intractable element
of combat trauma."
Broadly speaking, spiritual recovery involves both a careful
examination of one's actions as well as deep soul-searching. The veteran
is urged to take responsibility only for actions that were directly his,
and not the result of, for example, external pressure or intense stress,
fear, or rage generated by combat. One then analyzes those actions in
terms of their effects on one’s spirit, and their relationship to such
concepts as grace, redemption, and forgiveness.
The program consists of twelve weekly meetings, in which group members
move one step at a time through exercises and then specific tasks--which
Mahedy calls "spiritual pushups"--designed to help them in their
recovery. For example, the first step calls for members to say, "We
admit that we are powerless over the memories, emotions, attitudes,
thoughts, bodily reactions, and spiritual pain resulting from
To understand and embrace fully the meaning of that statement, members
must do things such as write down the most destructive memories or
emotions they have from the war and then describe the pain they feel from
remembering anything they saw or did in combat. One pushup associated with
this step requires the veteran to think of one good thing about five
people he doesn'’ like.
Seeing issues of guilt through a spiritual prism can also be
beneficial. "Guilt must be changed into animating guilt," Mahedy
writes in the monograph. "One’s life must be altered, transformed.
Where before the soldier was an instrument of death, the veteran must now
become a bearer of life. This involves the classical notion of atonement,
repentance. It is an essential component of successful therapy for
veterans who have done these actions."
Mahedy says there are particularly difficult steps, like Step Three’s
placing trust in God. Many combat veterans feel their trust in general was
betrayed in Vietnam; worse, many lost their faith in God because of the
war. But Mahedy says the point of his program isn't necessarily to restore
veterans' faith in God.
Some come out of the program still unsure of their religious beliefs,
but, he says, "They’re recovering. They’re less angry, and they’re
learning to cope and manage." And coping and managing are what the
program is all about. "The twelve steps are just suggestions for a
life. What they learn is how to deal with the issues for the rest of their
If it all sounds like heavy going, it’s worth noting that Mahedy
often works with veterans who participated in particular vicious events or
outright assassinations. "As might be expected," he said,
"the unresolved moral and religious residue of this kind of activity
is enormous." And finding resolution can be enormously hard in a
program that helps but doesn’t coddle you. "The 11th and the 12th
steps are the GOYA steps," Mahedy says. "Get Off Your Ass. You’ve
got to get out and work with people again, re-engage with life, come out
In three years Mahedy has seen the fruits his labors pay off: After
completing the program some veterans have formed alumni groups that
continue to meet weekly. Slowly, but steadily, they are re-engaging and
coming out of isolation.
Though he’s never applied his model outside of a Judeo-Christian
context, Mahedy firmly believes that it would work equally well for, say,
Muslims or Buddhists. "You just modify it" to fit the religious
context", he said. The twelve steps could be adapted, for example, to
the relevant specifics in the Koran that talk about redemption and
In the late 1980s Mahedy was part of a team of PTSD specialists who
traveled to Moscow to treat Russian veterans of the Soviet war in
Afghanistan. One of the first things he noticed was that these allegedly
"godless communists" often were practicing Christians. The other
thing was that PTSD transcended politics and culture. "Their symptoms
were exactly the same as we’d seen in our Vietnam veterans,’‘’
Mahedy is hoping to take his spiritual recovery program to Kosovo and
other parts of Bosnia where the recent civil war was particularly
devastating and brutal. "There’s both Islam and Christianity in
Kosovo, and I think that a specifically religious context is called for to
begin to heal those wounds,’‘’ he said.
Phil Salois has worked in the former Soviet republic of Georgia with
veterans of the civil war in Chechnya. So far he has done "basic,
PTSD-101 stuff," as he says, with those veterans. But in November he
went back to Georgia with his version of spiritual healing, which he
developed some four years ago and which he uses in treating ex-soldiers of
various faiths, including Islam.
Mahedy and Salois have personal connections with PTSD. From 1971-72,
Mahedy was a Catholic priest with the Army’s 1st Air Calvary, originally
in Long Binh and later throughout the III Corps area. (After Vietnam he
left the priesthood and became an Episcopalian minister.) His unit was in
many firefights. " I never killed anyone," Mahedy said,
"but I came close." And, as he recalls, "There was PTSD
right there in the field. We lost people, and the others would just be
shell-shocked by it."
Salois, however, had yet to join the seminary. In March 1970 he was a
private in the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and his company was
on a search-and-destroy mission in the triple canopy jungles of War Zone
D. His platoon was at the front of the column and walked into an ambush
that cut off part of his platoon from the rest of the company. Salois
volunteered to rescue the separated men. A buddy said he’d go with him.
The two dashed across a clearing under covering fire that allowed them to
find the men, but on the way back, Salois’s buddy was shot and killed.
For years Salois struggled with survivor’s guilt without even knowing
what it was. Though he says his PTSD was nothing compared to the suffering
of veterans he’s worked with--like a few others, his religious beliefs
actually intensified in Vietnam--it wasn’t until he went through some
basic treatment and then met with his buddy's family that he was able to
confront his PTSD.
By then he’d been a Catholic priest for more than fifteen years. He
joined a veterans group simply to find support among former comrades. But
when they learned he was a priest, some started coming to him for
counseling with their problems. "Within a year [the number of people
coming grew] so much that I saw a real ministry developing out of being a
Vietnam veteran and a priest," Salois said.
Frequently veterans brought their wives with them. "It really
started on the model of marriage counseling," he said. The issues
disrupting the marriages, however, involved PTSD from Vietnam. "It
was memories of the war, flashbacks, and not being able to manage them.
And their wives were not understanding that. So the wives were getting
tired of the mood swings, asking "What’s wrong with my
His approach was basic but effective--get couples to open up lines of
communication again, start talking to each other, in particular the
husbands to their wives, letting them know what was going on inside them.
But then Salois read Mahedy’s Out of the Night. It was the first
time he’d encountered an analysis of Vietnam and PTSD in terms of
spiritual healing. He felt this was something he needed to incorporate
into his approach to treating PTSD-afflicted veterans and their families.
Salois essentially adapted the model he’d been using into what he now
calls a "mountaintop experience." Officially his program is
known as "Spiritual Healing for Combat Veterans and their
Partners." in which he works with veterans of wars ranging from World
War II to the Persian Gulf conflict. He and three other specialists from
different backgrounds--including one atheist--host three-day retreats over
weekends. Together, they work with veterans (and their families, should
they bring them) on addressing emotional pain and scars through
The first task is to help the veteran reestablish a sense of community
around him--with his spouse, with other people, and ultimately with the
world. Later, Salois uses passages from the Bible in leading discussions
on sin, atonement, and the need for forgiveness. He said there are even
passages involving PTSD, though the Bible doesn’t name it as such.
"They find they can read the Bible and it can make sense to them
in this modern day and age," Salois said. "It’s not something
that was just written a thousand years ago and has no relevance for
As with Mahedy’s program, the goal of Salois's is less about
reconnecting veterans with Christianity than with rescuing them from a
pervasive sense of despair through a resurrection of faith in something
larger than themselves. Similarly, it’s not about helping veterans
forget their pain, their trauma, or their actions. Rather, it’s about
putting spirits at ease.