Where are my teammates? I’d lost track of their positions. I only knew that they were there, dead motionless in the dark. Soft and muffled voices whispered ten yards away. A metallic click…followed by breaking twigs as more enemy soldiers joined the hunt.
The night was so eternally black; I lost the distinction between sight and sensation, between real and ethereal. Everything around me fell away and dissolved, eaten by the blackness. I drifted. I resisted the sensation, trying not to succumb, but the night was powerful and strangely narcotic, and I lost my bearings. As I lay in the strange heaving blackness, the tiny piece of ground touching my belly remained my only sure connection with the finite. It was my raft, and I was floating through a nightmare.1
Excerpt from the “The Frog Hunter: A Story About the Vietnam War, an Inkblot Test and a Girl”1
During combat, time stops, and the war has its way with us. One scoop at a time. It hollows out the soul. After the battle, when darkness descends, it can take on nightmarish, even fantastical, proportions. Alone and silent, too many of our brothers and sisters have surrendered to the darkness, turning it inward on themselves. Why do warriors who fight fiercely and bravely against all odds give up the fight after coming home?
In the book, “The Red Badge of Courage,” Stephen Crane wrote, “So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath, his soul changed.”
War wounds the soul. Combat-related trauma is unlike other forms of PTSD, because it involves not only what happened to you but also what you did. “Why?” is the universal, existential question of war and it can drive men mad with grief. By the time veterans returned from the Vietnam war, there were few studies about the effects of combat trauma, and the havoc it can wreak on the mind, body and spirit over a lifetime. The misunderstanding and stigma surrounding the effects of the war on Vietnam Veterans lingered for years.
We now know through extensive research conducted after the Vietnam War that PTSD and combat trauma-related disorders are physiological—it’s how the human stress system works when exposed to fear, death and horror, during prolonged combat, and especially during multiple tours that our younger veterans have experienced in the Middle East.
PTSD is formally on the books as a psychological condition. But the mind and body work together, so PTSD is very much the body’s physical reaction to the trauma of war as well. The emphasis on “physical” is an important point for retired Army psychiatrist Charles Hoge ‘80, who wrote Once a Warrior Always a Warrior (GPP Life, 2010) to help soldiers with the transition from a hostile environment to home.
For returning soldiers, there’s a paradox at the heart of PTSD, Hoge believes. The symptoms that affect their ability to enjoy life back home, have meaningful relationships, or hold down a job are often the flip side of the reflexes that kept them alive in a war zone. “We place unrealistic expectations on warriors in thinking they can just snap out of these reactions when they come home, when, in fact, they don’t stop being a warrior,” Hoge says. It’s not just their minds that can’t let go. It’s their bodies.2
The intent to kill and destroy is what makes combat-related trauma not only a psychological disorder but also a psycho-spiritual disorder. In war, a soldier’s usual sense of morality is turned on its head, and what makes sense in wartime—even is essential in wartime—may not make sense once he returns to civilian life. Morality is the foundation of all other values, and moral damage may affect any or all of the other aspects of the veteran’s life; intimacy and love, the ability to appreciate beauty and pleasure, and his spiritual self.3
It is now recognized that profound healing from trauma can take place through positive life changes and spirituality. But science stops short of fully understanding the mysterious pathways of the warrior’s heart or what goes on in the chambers of his soul.
David, a king and warrior, reminds us in Psalm 139:8 that we were not alone when we “made our bed in hell,” and Matthew 10:29 tells us that not one sparrow falls to the ground without the Heavenly Father knowing. God was there when we made our bed in hell, and He was there when our buddies hit the ground like fallen sparrows.
During World War II, when the Germans were bombing the United Kingdom, Britain ordered blackouts of entire cities to prevent the German aircraft from visually identifying their vulnerable population centers. Citizens were required to cover all windows and doors with black curtains and extinguish all lights whenever the threat of an air raid presented itself. It was illegal to even strike a match to light a cigarette out of doors. It was understood that the light of a single candle could penetrate the darkness so deep it could be seen by an enemy pilot as far as thirty miles away. This verse of scripture illustrates the relationship between light and darkness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” John 1:5
I know what it’s like to sit in the middle of a vast jungle beneath a black sky, praying for the morning light. I know what it’s like to sit beneath a black blanket of depression, praying for a pinprick of light to come and dispel the darkness. In both situations, God came and brought the light I needed. And I did what a man wanting to find his way out of darkness would do; I rose to my feet and followed him into the light.
In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
To be clear, I am not talking about becoming religious. Religion is only man’s attempt to find his own way out of the darkness. It won’t light your way and chances are, it will only lead you further into the darkness.
I am talking about God coming to us with His light; a promise found in the book of Luke 1:78-79: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I can tell you firsthand, God keeps his promises.
To any of my veteran brothers and sisters who might contemplate the idea of ending it all because you can’t find your way out of the darkness… please don’t. Hit the pause button. Trust me, the world will NOT be better off without you. Neither will your loved ones. There are many who understand, who care about you and have your back. You know the code. We never leave a warrior behind.
Contact me via soulranger.com.
“God, your God, will restore everything you lost; he’ll have compassion on you; he’ll come back and pick up the pieces from all the places where you were scattered. No matter how far away you end up, God, your God, will get you out of there and bring you back.” Deuteronomy 30:3 The Message
1. Stamper, TB. (2021). The Frog Hunter: A Story About the Vietnam War, an Inkblot Test and a Girl. Milton Barn Press
2. Flecker, S. (2012). The Long Journey Home. Sarah Lawrence Magazine.
3. Langer, R. (1987). Combat Trauma, Memory, and the World War II Veteran. International Journal of the Humanities. Retrieved from http://www.CombatTraumaMemoryWWIIVet.pdf