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A Path Forward

Psychology professor and Vietnam veteran Patrick Stone offers advice for those who want to help traumatized soldiers

by Tamara Cissna |

The bones - skull, ribs, pelvis, femurs, knee caps - lay anatomically aligned on a table in the morgue operated by the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. Patrick Stone, clinical psychologist and George Fox adjunct professor, watches as a technician analyzes the remains for clues to an identity and cause of death.

Struggling to wear his "clinical hat," he wonders aloud how she and other forensic scientists can do this gruesome work day after day. The scientist tells Stone she knows they all must be a little crazy, but they are driven to help their countrymen recover loved ones and expose the atrocities committed during the country’s 36-year civil war when more than 200,000 Guatemalans "disappeared" and were buried in mass graves.

Stone, too, is there to bear witness and publicly acknowledge their suffering. A former infantry soldier who served in Vietnam, he is a lifelong student of wartime trauma survival and a seasoned counselor to veterans.

He is driven by a yearning for restitution that began 37 years ago during the Vietnam War. Then 20 years old, Stone was a squad leader of 12 men in the jungles of the country’s central highlands. During one engagement, he fired a rifle grenade that killed a teenaged Vietcong soldier. That moment, he says, altered his life - as taking a life or engaging in combat does for any soldier.

"The real truth is you are a changed person," says Stone. "You become acutely aware of evil. You gain an understanding of your basic instincts and of what humans can do to each other." He also carries an ever-present sadness for the life he took. Stone works tirelessly for restitution - trying to understand the psychological aftermath of war and to help those who have been traumatized to recover.

Stone’s quest for reconciliation has compelled him to travel the world — to Guatemala to observe how it’s recovering from its war trauma, to Kenya where he taught at Daystar University and studied tribal communities, and back to Vietnam where he visited the likely graveyard of the man he killed and met a village elder who probably fought against him.

He also helps traumatized combat veterans find new paths forward. Stone has spent thousands of hours counseling veterans in his private practice and advocates for widespread support. "There are many governmental resources for veterans, but the critical unmet needs are social and psychological - in the community where people live their daily lives," says Stone, who served as an advisor to the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on mental health care delivery systems in 2003-04.

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.

 Full story...

The cruelty of war

Some moral decisions made in the battlefield take a lifetime to untangle. For this, he says, veterans need care providers willing to see the horrors of war through the eyes of combat soldiers - to help them view their journeys as a spiritual quest as they rebuild their lives.

Stone suggests both empathy and humility are in order as we hear their stories. "Many of us don’t know the horrific choices that are commonplace in other parts of the world. And we don’t really know how we would respond unless we’re in those shoes," he says.

While in Africa, Stone met a young Eritrian woman who was raised in Canada. At age 16 she decided to visit her birthplace. During her stay, the Eritrian Army drafted her for its war with Ethiopia, despite her dual citizenship. During one operation, her squad captured teenaged enemy soldiers and didn’t have resources to keep them alive by Geneva Convention standards. So her sergeant forced each member of the squad to lead a captive into the desert with a single bullet in their gun - to kill their enemies or themselves. Knowing in the end her captive would be killed either way, she shot the young man and was haunted by nightmares for years.

"We don’t grasp the immediacy of these dilemmas," he says. "But for many returning soldiers, these types of grueling decisions have been an immediate part of their lives - whether to shoot the driver of a speeding car or an approaching child, for example. Then they must integrate these memories throughout the rest of their lives."

Supporting the troops

As backing for the Iraq War diminishes, most Americans are distinguishing between their support for veterans and the war. That’s good, but it’s best to not immediately express anti-war sentiments to returning veterans, he says. One Iraq War vet complained to Stone, "The last year my life was on the line. I’ve seen my friends killed. And they are going to tell me they’re against the war in the safety of being here after I’ve risked my life?" Some soldiers do want to talk right away about their political and spiritual beliefs about war, he says. But most 18- and 19-years-olds are not immediately ready.

"In the helper context, what I bring to these relationships in terms of my policy beliefs is irrelevant. They don’t care about my beliefs; they just know what they’ve been through.My beliefs can’t be the start of the conversation."

The helper’s role

For people who want to provide support, Stone offers the following advice:

For individuals:

Educate yourself about what it really is like for people you’re helping. Try to understand what these men and women have endured and prepare yourself to emotionally come alongside this person. Let their stories soak in.

"Listening to a veteran is not an intellectual exercise; it’s an emotionally entangling experience," Stone says.

Listen. Many people who would like to help are afraid they won’t know what to say. "Don’t let your emotions get in the way. Let it be about supporting the other person, not your reactions. Take the person to coffee. Get to know him or her."

For the time, it’s best to set aside your own political and spiritual convictions and just listen. "We should not try to convert war veterans to becoming antiwar activists - maybe later, but not immediately during their adjustment home," he says.

Expect honest answers. Asking how a veteran is doing is not a casual, friendly question. If you’re not prepared for a candid answer, don’t ask. One Iraq War veteran who recently returned told Stone, "People ask me how it was over there, and when I answer their eyes glaze over. So I just shut up."

If a person talks about horrific experiences, stay connected. It’s all about staying engaged and actively listening, he says.

It’s OK to ask for details, but don’t be pushy. No one likes to be interrogated.

Don’t show pity. Veterans want empathy, but not sympathy. Nobody wants to hear, "You poor boy."

Realize you cannot save or fix people. This is between God and them; it’s their story, not our story.

Allow time. Providing support is not a one-time occasion. The need for processing might last years or decades, and the needs change as people mature. It takes time for them to discover themselves in their new identity.

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.

 Full story...

For churches:

Focus on the individual upon his or her return, not on politics or theology. Honor the person. "At that moment, it’s about the individual." Don’t be critical or take political pot shots. A traumatized person is in a self-centered state. He or she may not be able to handle anything beyond dealing with the trauma.

Support the families. Be mindful of how difficult it has been to have their family life disrupted. Try to provide support and a social network. Create a community, a container, to help them navigate transitions and difficulties.

Sponsor support groups for returning veterans that focus on the existential issues. This can be as helpful as professional counseling. Choose a leader committed to facilitating conversation, guided by guidelines such as these.

Offer ceremonies or rituals. Some churches hold Veterans Day breakfasts to honor military service. Tell the veterans, "We honor your service." Perhaps a church espousing pacifism could say, "We honor your sacrifice."

The road home

The greatest factor in war veterans’ level of traumatization depends on the intensity and the duration of their combat experiences - the dose effect. Most return home able to lead fulfilling, productive lives. Even those with serious symptoms often function well, especially if they are well supported when they return.

Veterans who remain most troubled tend to be those who give in to addiction or become isolated from social support, Stone says.

The U.S. culture pushes veterans to assimilate quickly back into "normal" life, likely because most Americans have not been exposed to the types of trauma combat soldiers have experienced. But in many tribal cultures, a returning warrior is given time to return home as a transformed person. Rituals and ceremonies acknowledge the fact that a returning warrior is a changed person.

"The fact is you are changed. It’s important to accept that reality and make a path forward," he says.

Stone’s path forward includes trying to honor the man he killed by giving back to the world and bearing witness to the consequences of war. "As a Christian and a warrior and a person who would like to see all wars end, I encourage veterans and care providers to contribute to God’s kingdom - even in the aftermath of war’s brutality to body and soul," he says.


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