A painful homecoming
Iraq War veteran returns from horrific war experiences to face alienation back home
Two years after Andrea Westfall returned from her tour in Iraq, she nearly killed a dog that attacked her dog as she walked through a park. It was a snowy day, a world away from the Syrian Desert, but she spun into combat mode and almost pulled the other dog’s jaws apart. She then crawled into the backseat of her car and, for at least 20minutes, sat in a virtual trance.
“When I started coming back to reality, I noticed my friends out of the corner of my eye standing around outside and began to realize nobody’s asked me if I’m OK,” she says. “They occasionally looked over at me, but just kept to themselves. Another two hours went by, and no one said anything to me.”
When she confronted them about it later, a friend answered, “We didn’t know what to do, so we just left you alone.” This was the common response Westfall encountered upon her return from nine grisly months working as a flight medic in the Iraq War — the painful, isolating response.
Westfall, who served for nine months beginning in May 2003, says she came back a changed person with troubling questions about life, God, and Christians’ priorities. “I really had a difficult time trying to figure out what was going on in my head,” she says. “People would ask, ‘How are you doing?’ I would answer honestly and tell them I was struggling, hoping they really wanted to know. But before I could even complete the sentence, they would pat me on the arm and ask, ‘Are you seeing someone?’
“People started to realize I was different and were uncomfortable around me, so they just ignored me. I felt alone and ostracized, which made everything even more devastating.”
A flight medic with the Oregon Army National Guard, Sgt. Andrea Westfall tried to numb the pain of isolation and images of injured soldiers with alcohol when she first returned home. She now works to help churches train members to better support veterans’ emotional needs.
Westfall says people who want to be supportive should trust their common sense. “Think of any situation when you were hurting, and remember what you wanted. Do that,” she says. “Be available — buy someone a cup of coffee or go on a walk with them. Let them talk and be willing to listen to the ranting and hard questions. Showing empathy to the pain and suffering can make all the difference.”
Westfall, 38, graduated from George Fox last winter with a bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral studies. She now works with Campus Crusade for Christ’s Military Ministry, training churches how to support veterans and their families. In February, she moved near the University of Texas in Austin, where she plans to study for a master of social work degree.
She still has nightmares, flashbacks, triggers — the struggles of post traumatic stress disorder. She feels more equipped these days to recognize situations that might be difficult for her and relies on the tools she has developed to deal with themas they occur.
“The young ones are the ones I worry about because they haven’t developed the life skills yet,”Westfall says, “especially if they have no one to talk to or someone who wants to try and understand.”
Friends in the field
As a Quaker-founded institution, George Fox University aligns with the Friends Church in its commitment to seeking nonviolent solutions for resolving conflict.
Despite their opposition to war, Quakers have long cared for persons traumatized or displaced by war, says Professor of Psychology Kathleen Gathercoal, an expert on Friends’ contributions to the field of mental health.Whether doing relief work in villages devastated in the Prussian War or working as medics in World War II, Friends have provided humanitarian services while also standing witness against the violence, she says.
“War has profound effects on the soul of the soldier,” Gathercoal says. “Providing care to soldiers is a practical expression of our faith and hope in the transforming power of God’s love.”
There is no clash between espousing pacificism and ministering to victims or participants of war, says Lon Fendall, director of the university’s Center for Peace and Justice. “In the face of any human suffering, we ask:Who is hurting? How can we help?”
Friends are eager to help victims on both sides of wars, for example, going out of their way to help the Vietcong in the Vietnam War or helping Iraqis families look for their missing loved ones, as alumnus Matt Chandler (G03) did during his term with Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Herbert Hoover — the most famous Quaker associated with the university — was heroic in leading post-World War I recovery efforts. Many wounded and displaced people continued to suffer after the war ended. Fendall says Hoover did remarkable things to mobilize public and private resources to respond to the enormous need – without respect to which side of the war these people were on, he says.
“The need to alleviate suffering is a timeless principle,” Fendall says. “People of differing views on war could agree with that.” For university resources on peacemaking and conflict management, visit georgefox.edu/offices/peace_justice.