If you are like me, you are captivated by the war in Ukraine. The draw to me is certainly not the “sport” of war. I have never had a desire to play war video games and have a dislike of war movies. I was in the Air Force as a medical officer, and we had arms training and participated in war games. As a civilian I’ve worked in war refugee camps in the Middle East. I would fight to defend my family. I do think the Ukrainians have the right to take up arms to defend their families and country. But I think it is the empathy that draws me in. I check the news on the hour with the hope and pray that there is an off-ramp developing, where this tragedy could find an end to the suffering. But if the war ended tonight, the “clean up” and rebuilding would take years and the personal suffering will last generations.
While the numbers killed are untrustworthy at this juncture, the fog of war is making it difficult to count bodies and propaganda machines working overtime to deceive us, the numbers are certainly high. But whatever the number of dead are, both Ukrainians and Russians, the number of traumatized will be much higher.
I just watched an interview with a little Ukrainian boy and that became the impetus of this writing. He and his mother were escaping in their car when they were either hit by a shell or drove over a mine. But nonetheless, their car exploded. He was thrown from the front seat with both legs seriously damaged (and possible lost) and looking back at his bleeding mother. She was on fire and pleaded for help, but he could not stand. He laid in the dirt and watched his mother burn to death, screaming all the while—him helpless to move. How can his life ever be normal after this? It can’t.
I never knew my father. I knew the man who inhabited the body of the man who fathered me. But the real man disappeared in the fog on Normandy beach a decade before I was born. This man that I loved but didn’t really know, never spoke of the war–or anything personal for that matter. The only think I knew about his service was a display case on our wall of his metals. When I was in college and studied World War II, I came home one weekend just to ask him about the war. He was not hesitant to tell me, just that no one had asked. Years later I watched the movie, Saving Private Ryan. Based on what Dad told me that weekend home from college, the movie was very accurate.
Dad stepped off his landing boat in ten feet of French surf. With a heavy backpack on and his sniper’s rifle, he sank to the bottom of the sea. He fought his way to the surface where he watched his pals around him being shot or drowning. Sea water diluting his pal’s blood filled his mouth. Somehow, he and his best friend made it to shore. The two of them ran to an anti-tank obstacle, which the Nazi’s had laid across the beach. The two men laid behind the iron obstacles that looked like giant versions of the metal jacks or knucklebones in the game of jacks. You may have seen similar obstacles constructed by Uranian welders placed in city centers.
My dad and his best friend laid behind the obstacle for some time as bullets came across them like horizonal rain drops in a wind-driven summer’s squall. They laid there long enough that his friend took out photos of his family and shared them with Dad. They each took turns looking above the metal to see if American shelling had taken out enough German “pill boxes” that they could run to the cliffs. It was Dad’s friend’s turn to look and when he raised his head above the metal beam, it exploded into a million pieces—stuck by a large shell. Suddenly Dad was covered with the blood, brains, and eye of his best friend. In a panic, Dad ran for the cliffs and scaled them to the top.
Dad was in the fight for weeks in France where he experienced hand-to-hand combat with German soldiers, having to kill at least one—Dad was a sniper. I know this because I have that dead German’s arm band in my drawer.
We were told as a kid that my Dad got hit by a shell in France and was hospitalized in England. But as an adult, I learned that Dad wasn’t hit by a shell, but had a mental breakdown, which they called in those days, “Shell shock.” Something to be ashamed of. We now call it PTSD.
When I studied medicine in the early 1980s and during my first decades of practice, we had an unwritten belief within the medical establishment, that if a machine could not find a health problem, it wasn’t real. Fibromyalgia was one such disorder. Virtually all mental health problems where thought were on the spectra or continua that spread from normal people to the insane. The point being poor mental health was due to bad personal choices in our thinking.
To exacerbate this error of perspective, I was an evangelical at the time. Within that subculture, we did not believe in the brain. The existence of the brain was just another lie told to us by the scientists. We didn’t believe in science. We only believed in conspiracy theories that all the scientists were out to get us. We believed that we were only a soul. Ghostlike. Steam or air, that is easily directed with no material interface. The way we were (mentally) was the sum of our choices. Mental illness, we believed in the 1970s and 80s, was always about bad moral choses, or what we called sin. Anxiety disorders the result of being lazy or stupid, by not trusting God. Depression was being lazy or stupid by not “looking on the bright side of life or God’s blessings.” But this attitude predates American evangelicalism.
A few years ago I was at a scientific meeting in Glasgow, Scotland. During a down time, I visited an old Victorian hospital and cemetery. There was an sign from the early nineteenth century that marked the old cemetery into to parts, “The Baptized” and “The Unbaptized and Insane.” The belief at that time that insanity was a moral problem, and you could not be a real Christian, according to the Church of England, and “insane.”
In the line of thinking of my medical establishment and my brand of evangelism, PTSD was the result of not being manly enough, brave enough, or righteous enough. I hope that many in that community, who thought things like that, have come to their loving senses. I believe that they have.
But something does happen, physically, when the level of trauma is high enough to cause PTSD. I will not get into the lengthy description of the recent research, as the machines now show us the damage.1 I will say I know this from experience as a PA. It could be war. It could be a car accident, where you barely escape with your life. It could be the horrors where a previous wonderful father (or youth pastor) came into your bedroom—to rape you. It could be from losing a child. It could be having the shit beat out of you by your husband over and over. It could be many things, but then you felt it. You snap, like a priceless Tiffany lamp dropped to the floor–pieces of colored glass going everywhere. Something inside your brain breaks and life will never, ever be the same again. The world looks very differently, more dangerous, relating to other humans more onerous. All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men could never put that brain right again.
General mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or even bipolar disorders can find a great deal of healing. It is like a bad burn, with lots of help (therapists), self-help, and sometimes medications, the skin may look near normal, a little scaring and hypersensitive. But PTSD is more like a double amputation. A prosthetist can fit them with artificial legs to the point they could walk again, but they can never be whole in the same way as before, the same with a good therapist and hard work in PTSD. I think modern medical science now recognizes this, how serious PTSD is and that prevention is far easier than treatment. It is for this additional reason I grieve for Ukrainians, and the Russian soldiers. I do not grieve for Putin and his little spineless men.
Can’t God heal PTSD through prayer? I’ve never seen it and I’m a realist. No reflection on his ability as I do believe that God created the 13.7 billion light year wide universe, but for some reasons he does not work outside of natural laws now, or at least I’ve never witnessed it. At least I’ve never seen God heal someone with PTSD to the point they are normal. In my attempts to keep controversial topics off this main blog page, if you want to hear more about my views on this go here, but please be respectful as I am of you.
So my conclusion is that this war in the Ukraine is doing far more damage each day than meets the eye. All wars do. My dad was a tough bustard. He checked 110 Volt power lines with his finger. Sorry about any typos as this is my chemo-steroid day and it makes me a bit manic and wordy and not a stickler for details.
The Hermit at Loch Eyre (just had my first hair cut after 3 years so maybe that doesn’t make me a hermit anymore)
Footnote for scientific research into PTSD