We are 17 years into the war on terrorism. During that time, hundreds of thousands of our American brothers and sisters have faced the horrors of war. Many are in desperate need of spiritual healing. Their despair is deep. Too often, it is fatal.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that, on average, 20 vets take their own lives each day. Veterans’ advocate Richard Glickstein notes that, over the past 15 years, the federal government has instituted 1,100 suicide-prevention programs for servicemen and women. Yet the suicide rate has remained unchanged.
The recent film “Surrender Only to ONE” frankly portrays the rigors of combat and how they can affect the mind, body and spirit. Only those who have been in combat can truly know the weight a warrior carries on each mission. But all of us can at least imagine the stress of knowing that every single decision you make — or don’t make — can wind up killing or maiming a comrade.
Too often that burden does lasting damage. PTSD can be just as deadly as an IED and more difficult to manage than the chaos of a back-alley ambush. It’s something the producer of “Surrender,” Lt. Col. Damon Friedman, knows all too well. And Friedman is determined to do something about it.
In addition to serving as an active duty special operations officer and film producer, Friedman wears a third hat — as president of Shield of Faith Missions (SOF Missions). In that role, he has one objective: “to provide the hope that our men and women who have gone into combat, who have defended this country, to give them the hope that they need.”
While the government has tried to help those with PTSD, Glickstein says, “The reality is what we’ve done so far is not working.” Current VA guidelines for treating PTSD include both trauma-focused treatment that is personalized to the experience of the individual serviceman, as well as a pharmaceutical mainstay of mental health, an SSRI anti-depressant.
There is strong evidence that, properly managed, these interventions can work. But problems with the VA are well-known, and actual utilization of VA mental health services can be alarmingly low. In one study, only one third of veterans with a new diagnosis of PTSD received treatment through the VA, and fewer than 10 percent were properly treated, per VA guidelines.
Notably missing from these guidelines is any mention of spirituality. Friedman poses this question: “If we really truly care about providing a solution for our men and women, are we providing every viable option?” Dr. David LeMay, a physician on the board of SOF Missions, summarizes the limitations of DOD-approved therapies this way: “I can do float therapy; I can do CBT; I can do neurofeedback EEG, but I can’t do prayer.” Unless we start considering the spiritual fitness of our servicemen, 15 years from now the suicide rate will still be 20 each day.
During a Nov. 29 panel discussion at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, participants talked about their observations of how spiritual healing builds up resilience against suicide. Friedman spoke of his personal battle against PTSD darkness. Glickstein cited work done by Tyler Vanderweele, Ph.D., and Harold Koenig, M.D., that shows religious practice can reduce suicide risk. Indeed, frequent attendance to religious services is associated with significantly decreased suicide rates.
LeMay described his work to activate the body’s “rest and repair” system to ratchet down the “fight or flight” response that is overstimulated in PTSD. He has found prayer and spirituality to be an invaluable tool in doing this. In fact, a combination of physical medicine and spiritual healing has enabled many of his patients to come off of medications completely.
These men have no wish to force soldiers to attend religious services or complete a mandatory spiritual fitness regimen. But they do want to make the information available to them. Military leaders and providers in the VA should not have to hide the spiritual components of healing in unofficial advisories, or as Friedman puts it, to “find a private corner just to find hope.” Servicemen and women should be informed of what organizations such as SOF Missions have learned firsthand: that there can be redemption through a power greater than ourselves, a power that can reach down through the deepest brokenness.
And, God willing, lives will be saved.
Kevin Pham, M.D., entered the field of health policy studies as a graduate fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
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