Returning vets speak of realities of battlefield

By Sean Barron


Too often, the media and movies are the sole means by which people’s perceptions of war are formed, fed, shaped and cemented. But such romanticized, Hollywood-style portrayals are usually miles from the realities of life on the battlefield, a chaplain and longtime military member contends.

‘War isn’t glorious,’ retired Maj. Leslie Haines said during a workshop she conducted Saturday at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 2305 S. Canfield-Niles Road (state Route 46). ‘What we do is hard; we never forget the first time we take someone’s life.’

The Fort Wayne, Ind., woman, who served 33 years in the Army, including one tour of duty each in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, led the seven-hour seminar, ‘Binding the Wounds of War.’ The program’s primary aim was to provide tools for others to help veterans ‘“ especially those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan ‘“ make easier transitions to civilian life and being back with their families.

Haines, executive director of a Fort Wayne-based organization called Lutheran Military Veterans & Families Ministries Inc., noted that even though less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has served in the military, service personnel have a disproportionately high incidence of suicide, high-risk behaviors, stress and depression.

For example, the suicide rate among soldiers has steadily risen and surpassed that of civilians by more than 20 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2015, the combined rate for National Guard members and Reservists was 23 percent higher than in 2014, she noted.

In addition, about four in 10 women and one in 10 men suffer some form of sexual trauma in the military, a situation in which the victim and perpetrator usually know each other and that more often goes unreported, she said. In rare instances, females are the perpetrators, she noted.

Barriers to reporting the crime include the military’s high emphasis on loyalty and cohesion, a taboo against divulging negative information about a peer and a desire to remain strong and fit in, Haines continued. She added that violent sexual crimes by soldiers increased about 64 percent between 2006 and 2011.

Soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan often face depression and similar hardships, but also have unique challenges on the battlefield. Those include suicide bombings, civilians being used as human shields and decoys, no discernible recovery time, extreme weather conditions and indirect threats, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs and snipers, Haines explained.

Another daunting aspect of military life is the cycle of deployment and redeployment, partly because family members typically are forgotten.

‘Too often, it’s ‘ÀúHow’s John doing?’ and not ‘ÀúHow are you doing?’’ she said. ‘I think families have it worse.’

Higher-than-average rates of child abuse and divorce are seen in many families in which a loved one undergoes multiple deployments, Haines explained.

Also, children of military families have higher rates of alcoholism and an increase in attempted suicide, compared with their civilian counterparts. Additionally, they sought outpatient mental-health care twice as often in 2008 than at the start of the war in Iraq in early 2003, she said.

‘The more deployments, the worse it gets,’ Haines said.

A first step toward helping veterans and their families heal from their wounds and readjust to civilian life is being aware of what not to say to them. People should refrain from trivializing a soldier’s experiences, claiming they understand the person’s plight, encouraging the soldier to ‘stop dwelling on it’ and expressing concern that the person might ‘snap,’ Haines noted.

It’s imperative that clergy members, health-care professionals, educators, caregivers and others allow those returning from war to share their feelings and stories while actively and nonjudgmentally listening to them. Also crucial is developing a better understanding of military culture, in which positive traits such as hard work, camaraderie, orderliness, teamwork, conformity and trust usually co-exist with negative ones that include loneliness, boredom, a loss of individuality and a sense of being expendable, Haines told her audience.

‘You’ve got to connect all the dots if you want to help someone physically or mentally,’ she stressed.

Perhaps just as importantly, regardless of one’s resilience or sense of duty, it’s important to recognize that those who re-enter civilian life come back altered and scarred in some way.

‘We leave a piece of ourselves over there, and we never get that piece back,’ Haines said. ‘No one comes back the same.’

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