A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

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 there."

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 combat."

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 combat."

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 lives."

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 of isolation."

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 forgiveness.

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 said.

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 husband?"

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 spirituality.

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 them."

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.


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